In her recent opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Laura Kipnis complains that codes governing professor-student relationships on college and university campuses have created paranoia among students. She cites a specific case on her own campus, Northwestern University, in which an undergraduate filed a complaint against a philosophy professor for sexual assault. When Northwestern officials didn’t discipline the professor as seriously as they might have, the student sued the university under Title IX and the professor for violation of the Gender Violence Act. In discussing this case, Kipnis adopts a tone of demeaning superiority toward this student that echoes the abuse of professorial power in instances of professor-on-student sexual harassment. In both cases, a professor with more stature and power wields it so as to humiliate and intimidate a student.
Kipnis uses similar demeaning sarcasm in narrating her voluntary attendance at a sexual harassment workshop at Northwestern. Immediately, she sets about ridiculing the two administrators who led the workshop—“David” (not his real name), “an earnest mid-50s psychologist,” and “Beth,” who gave the group a “pretest” consisting of questions Kipnis considers beneath her for their “painful dumbness.” After several slings at David, Kipnis relates how the group of professors began to gang up on him—“Rebellion was in the air,” she writes—to which he responded in part by nervously and reflexively jangling his pocket change. She then recalls that, in a book about body language, she once read that “coin-jangling [is] an unconscious masturbation substitute.” What enables Kipnis to insult David in such a sophomoric, inappropriately personal way is her (at least imagined) greater power as a faculty member over a mid-level administrator. Her reliance on her unfair advantage, however, is ultimately more embarrassing to her than to him.
As is evident in comments on the Chronicle’s web site and in follow-up tweets, Kipnis has a following of like-minded faculty colleagues who participate with her in mockery, whether of students who have had the courage to lodge formal complaints of sexual assault or of administrators who take seriously their mission to prevent on-campus assault. Inside their circle, they deem one another clever, witty, and knowing. To those outside their circle, though, they appear unfeeling and mean, verging on middle-school bullies. Their sense of entitlement mirrors that of the professor who uses his position to harass a student.
No one would wish the pain of sexual assault on Kipnis and her followers so that they could experience its devastation first-hand. But one would wish for them a shot of sympathetic imagination and a dose of humanity, enabling them to view other people as subjects, rather than as objects for their amusement.